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Clarification of the Huge Chevron Gulf Oil Discovery

The September 5th announcement by Chevron and Devon and Statoil of the huge Gulf of Mexico discovery should be clarified. The announcement claims that the discovery could increase US proven reserves of oil by as much as 50%. However, the total amounts are highly speculative. Additionally, the discovery likely won't impact oil markets but could potentially impact natural gas markets since the discovery is probably mainly natural gas. The area will not come online for at least 4 years and, at a full rate, for at least 7 years. Further, it is likely that there are political motivations behind the announcement, as the vote to open offshore drilling in the United States is upcoming in the US Senate.

1. The range of amount -- from 3 billion to 15 billion (in itself a huge range -- reserves of Exxon Mobil are around 14 billion barrels total) is comprised of no single field of more than 300 million barrels. An entire area of as much as 15 billion barrels with no "giant" over 1 Bn bar oil field is unusual. Oil discoveries tend to cluster with a giant (King) and several queens and even more jacks.

2. The area is very deep: 7000 feet of seawater and a further 20,000 feet below the ground. That is about 4 miles below the bottom of the ocean, in 1+ miles of deep water. The normal time to accurately estimate oil and gas field size is months. These fields are more challenging because of the extreme depths. It is therefore likely that very little is known with certainty about the potential reserves from a geological standpoint.

3. Production will not start, at the very earliest, at 2010. Full production, will not start at the very earliest 2013. Many projects are being delayed so these dates are most likely the best possible scenario.

4. The wells are located in deep water and will not be served by underground GOM pipelines. The oil will be pumped directly to tankers. Pipelines are faster and more efficient, and tankers will put a higher price and limited the amount of oil pumped out.

5. The wells are most likely mainly natural gas, as they are very deep. All estimates are in barrels of oil equivalent. Oil tends to form closer to the surface, gas deeper. Therefore the discovery is likely to impact natural gas markets, not oil, if the gas exists in meaningful quantities.

6. The US Senate is weeks away from voting on the lifting of the 25-year ban on offshore drilling off the majority of the coasts in the US. This offshore drilling bill was approved in the House of Representatives but political analysts believe the bill will face more opposition in the Senate. The oil industry stands to make high profits if Congress will open up Florida and the Offshore East coast to drilling. To date the offshore drilling bill has not been approved by both houses because of environmental interests. A large potential oil “discovery” in the Gulf would provide evidence that the passing of the offshore oil bill would be beneficial.

7. Related to point #6, the announcement is reminiscent of the Mexican "huge oil discovery" announced last year, of a possible 10 billion barrels, which was quietly revised this year to around 43 million barrels, a downward revision of 99.57%. This similar "discovery" was made in Mexico last year a few months before the Mexican parliament was to vote on Pemex (state oil co)'s budget and rights to expand drilling. This illustrates the potential political pressure to announce oil and gas discoveries.

8. The wells are estimated to cost between $80M to $120M each, starting in 2010, and a completion time of 60 days. Payback period with gas at $7 is about 3 to 5 years (by my rough calculations). Although it is likely that some new technical issues will be likely be needed to be resolved as the depth is approaching record levels. Further, insurance rates at these depths in the Gulf will likely be very high – the rough payback period here doesn’t include insurance costs.

Editorial Notes: Randy Kirk is a senior financial analyst at Private Wealth Partners in San Francisco, California. JM comments (with regard to point 5): "First, the discovery is oil, not gas - although there is almost certainly substantial gas associated with this discovery. Mr. Kirk is confused about the "oil window", which is 7500-15,000 feet. This is the depth range in which oil is formed. However, oil can migrate to much deeper depths after it is formed."

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